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Charles Amirkhanian Interviews Henry Brant
CA: Now, why did you call this piece Ice Field?

HB: In July 1926 I crossed the Atlantic in a little, 8000-ton steamer, going to France. In a single day we went through an actual ice field and saw perhaps 100 icebergs of all sizes. Some, as we crept by them, seemed to be as high as a 10-story building, and when our boat passed between two of these monsters, you suddenly had to put on your overcoat, but as soon as our boat emerged, you’d suddenly have to take off your coat in a hurry to avoid getting fried in the blazing sun.

CA: Was it dangerous?

HB: It could have been because we were told that I think 6/7ths of an iceberg is under water and nobody knows exactly what its shape is, and even on a nice day, it would be impossible to say whether the boat would hit anything. (We didn’t hit anything.)

CA: Did the boat slow down because you had encountered the ice field?

HB: Yes, it took us a whole day to crawl through the blinding maze of ice giants. This suited us fine. We got to see them. I do not claim that the memory of this experience is somehow reflected in Ice Field. It’s only a title. I did recall the episode when I started to write the piece but the idea of trying to depict icebergs in sound is something I wouldn’t even want to attempt.

CA: Why were you going to Europe when you were 12 years old? What was going on in your life?

HB: My father who was a professional violinist—

CA: What was his name?

HB: Saul Brant. He had studied in Europe in the 1890’s. A former fellow student Lionel Gittelson, had a violin business in New York where my father sometimes went to get a bow rehaired or a soundpost reset. On one occasion Gittelson brought out a violin. "Take a look at this, Saul. Play on it." My father did and was astonished. "It’s great. Who made it?" The label inside said Stradivarius but there are thousands of violins with false labels. Both men thought, "Yes, this one has to be the real thing." Unfortunately it had no cast-iron credentials. The only authoritative credentials at that time came from William Hill of London. If he said a violin was genuine, it was. If he said it wasn’t, it wasn’t. (Hill had written the accepted scholarly book on Stradivarius.) Anyway my father made a deal and acquired the mystery violin. He then got in touch with a French violinmaking friend, Pierre Hel, who had access to William Hill, a somewhat elusive Englishman otherwise unapproachable by misguided Americans who discovered "Stradivariuses" that weren’t worth anything. Accordingly, my father decided to take our violin, as well as our whole family to France to get the mattered settled. We found Mr. Hill vacationing in a little French village and at M. Hel’s request, he agreed to look at our violin. I was allowed to be present at the examination. After one quick look he said immediately, "I’ve never seen this before. I’ve examined 600 Stradivarius violins and this is undoubtedly the 601st. Even the label in it, which says 1645, is genuine, but I must tell you that this label doesn’t belong in this violin. I have no hesitation in assuring you that it’s a remarkable example of the year 1686. I happen to have a genuine 1686 label that I don’t know what to do with, and if you like I’ll take out the label that doesn’t belong there and put this one in." Unfortunately my father didn’t agree with this idea.

CA: Why not?

HB: He thought someone would be deceived if our family ever had to dispose of the violin. This caused a lot of confusion when we tried to sell the instrument after my father’s death. (It was finally purchased by a Puerto Rican violinist, José Figueroa.) In any case that violin, the purpose of our voyage, entered France without any certified identity and left in triumph as a full-blooded Strad. My father played it exclusively for the rest of his life. And but for this instrument I might never have seen an ice field—certainly not at that time.

CA: What were some of the highlights of the trip? Who did you see? Where did you go?

HB: Well, we were in the north of France, also in Belgium. Pierre Hel asked if we would like to visit Eugène Ysaÿe (the legendary Belgian violinist, composer and conductor) who lived nearby. (M. Hel’s father, Joseph Hel, also a violinmaker, had made a quartet of instruments for the Ysaÿe Quartet which they always used.) Although Ysaÿe was my father’s idol he had never studied with him, being afraid that Ysaÿe’s influence would overpower his own personality.
Henry Brant, father Saul, brother Bertram, and mother Bertha, traveling to France in 1926

So we called on the master. The three men talked for a while, then Ysaÿe turned to me and very kindly inquired, "Young man, would you like to play something?" I was terrified. But I played the Mozart D Minor Fantasia. He nodded and asked, "Anything else?" I said I hoped to become a composer and could I play something of my own? He listened and spoke to my father. "Do what you can for him. He has a strong harmonic sense." That was enough. My career was decided.

CA: I understand you also went to the monument where the Armistice of the First World War was signed. Where was that exactly?

HB: In the forest of Compiègne.

CA: And you were just there for a few moments to take a picture?

HB: Yes.

CA: But this ability to have a piece be performed by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, is this in any way a special occasion for you?

HB: Very. Oh yes. Extremely. First of all, it’s an orchestra that does not play a new piece as a mere occasional novelty. New music is a normal part of their diet and attitude towards music, and their conductor knows the idioms of the 20th and 21st century as natural musical speech. So this occasion is indeed special for me.

CA: You share with Michael Tilson Thomas a kind of pedigree in the area of music that was carved out by Charles Ives and his followers. That must also be rather special for you to have Michael Tilson Thomas conducting this piece because he knows a great deal about the music of Ives and Ruggles and others in this field. So shouldn’t that give you a bit of a head start in the interpretation of this piece?

HB: Very much so. I’ve just learned that Michael Tilson Thomas was a close friend of Carl Ruggles, as I was. He was my neighbor in Vermont. I don’t say he "influenced" me—that is such a glib cliché—but he did give me some working nuts and bolts about composing. One autumn day we were talking about melody. "Henry, go outside and bring me some maple leaves all from that tree." I did and he arranged the leaves on top of each other. "You see, they’re all maple leaves, all from the same tree, all have five points, yet nothing coincides exactly. That’s my idea of melody." which is something you don’t hear except from a top composer.

CA: It’s a very graphic example, isn’t it?

HB: I offer it to all composers, living and dead. Michael Tilson Thomas had never met Varèse whose music he so much admires, and has so much sympathy for, but I knew Varèse, and he knew my spatial music from the beginning. And instead of talking about it in detail, he came to the first rehearsal, then asked, "What are you going to write next? Let me know when the rehearsal is, and I’ll be there." Well, that said more to me than miles of words of wisdom.

CA: In other words, he gave you the fortitude to go on and try every possible thing you could do with spatial music.

HB: Yes, if a composer of his stature thought it worthwhile, it seemed to me that it was worthwhile.

CA: Now what happens in a spatial piece if something can’t quite be heard? Would you amplify it?

HB: I never use amplification or electronics because I think that they are probably carcinogenic.

CA: So the music has to work and the hall has to work with the music.

HB: That’s it. Spatial music has to work in terms of the design of the hall and its acoustics, with live musicians playing acoustic instruments.

CA: Thank you very much, Henry.

HB: Pleasure.

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